Google tipped off authorities to the identity of a man suspected of using his GMail account, according to a local US news report.
Houston Police arrested John Henry Skillern, 41, after they were sent information by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that showed that he had sent an email with an explicit image of a young girl.
Skillern, a convicted sex offender, has reportedly been charged with possessing child pornography.
The case raises the issue of how Google polices its users’ behaviour online, and monitors the emails they send through their “private” email accounts.
Google generates revenues for GMail through advertising, which is dynamically matched the the text of the email alongside which it is shown – this is the cost of such “free” email services. Competitors, such as Microsoft’s Outlook.com also show ads, but they are keen to point out that they do not scan their users’ emails or target the advertising to keywords in messages.
Alongside the message scanning for advertising keywords, it is interesting to see that Google also appears to be actively scanning all attachments sent through its service, and if images sent match the images of abuse known to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), then they contact the relevant authorities.
No human being read the emails or see the attachments in GMail, but computer algorithms are used to match images with those of known abuse to try and protect children and find their abusers. Google obviously feels that child abuse is a cause that is worth limiting privacy. However, the search giant appears to value user privacy over “crimes” of copyright infringement or hate speech, as they are not flagged by the system.